US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Did Obama "punch us in the nose" with the HHS mandate? When rhetoric gets in the way of resolution

Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Among the more disturbing elements of the controversy over the HHS mandate, at least in Catholic circles, is the presumption of bad will on the part of the administration. Peggy Noonan suggested the president sought "the pleasure of making a great church bow to him." Michael Sean Winters, now Rod Dreher of the American Conservative's "favorite liberal Catholic polemicist," accuses the president of punching "us" in the nose. Dreher himself accuses the president of "sandbagging" Sister Carol Keehan of the Catholic Health Association (CHA's statements have been much more measured); E.J. Dionne accused the president of throwing his liberal Catholic supporters under the bus.  Timothy Dolan today claims the president broke promises to him, suggesting that he can't trust the president to work on a compromise (indeed, the bishops seem to have already ruled out a promising one); in fact, Dolan did everything but call the president a an untrustworthy liar, which I found a bit shocking given that there is no transcript of their meeting available for us to judge for ourselves.

In other words, in the minds of many it seems--including many bishops--the president is "out to get us," duplicitous, intent on stripping "us" of our freedoms and turning "us" over to feminists (some of whom are Catholic) and forcing Catholic hospitals to perform abortions (which is utterly untrue).

This is, frankly, both unseemly and uncharitable--and profoundly unhelpful, unless you just want Obama to lose in 2012, which I am beginning to think is the motivation of many commentators. But as I have noted earlier, I don't think many people have sought to understand the complexity of the issue, even the legal dimension of it. As much as I admire the editors of Commonweal for their insight on this matter, even their most recent editorial on the mandate doesn't seem to acknowledge the legally complex and contentious nature of what makes this institution or that "Catholic."

In effect, Catholic institutions (however understood) are insisting that they are Catholic if they say they are, and should thus be exempt from offering as part of what every other employers (except certain other religious institutions) must offer as part of the health care portion of their compensation package. I can see why any administration would not want to open that can of worms, lest the Scientologists start asking that they be exempt from covering mental health services, or the Mennonites ask to be exempt from paying the Pentagon's portion of their income taxes.

What is at issue here is a conflict of "rights": free exercise of religion on the one hand with the right to be paid equally on the other, or the right to equal health care in an employer-based system. Add the further complexities of government social service contracts, funding for higher education, Medicaid--and the fact that Catholic organizations have deliberately created themselves in the civil law to be a part of these government funding mechanisms--and you end up with a difficult legal and religous morass.

The president may have made a mistake--legal and/or political--but I think his decision was a principled one that sought to strike a balance. In other words I take him at his word. I have ample evidence that he is a man of principle--as much as any politician can be. That doesn't mean I agree with this decision or a number of other decisions he has made.

Demonizing the other side by imputing bad will or even malevolence will do nothing to solve this conundrum, and the endless bloviation made possible by unlimited web word counts doesn't either. In this Catholics and others have learned the wrong lesson from Capitol Hill: Calling the other side names will only get you gridlock and animus, not solutions. Christians ought to be able to find another way.